The eyes signal a romantic interest, Wellesley study finds

How do you tell if someone wants to be more than friends? The answer might lie in the way he or she looks at you, researchers at Wellesley College have discovered.

In a study published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, assistant psychology professor Angela Bahns found that people’s eyes scan the body in different ways when looking at a romantic partner than when looking at a friend.

Bahns and a group of researchers asked more than 100 heterosexual participants to look at photos of the opposite sex while wearing eye-movement tracking headsets. With a first set of photos, they were asked questions about whether they would be interested in being friends with the person pictured. In a second — which included some of the same photos — they were asked about whether they’d have a romantic interest in the person.


Bahns said people tended to look more at the face and chest when asked about romance, but the eyes would wander down toward feet and legs as well when asked about friendship. Bahns correlated looking at the face to evolutionary tendencies.

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“The romance connection with the face makes sense — it’s a visual cue that’s known to signal sexual attraction,” Bahns said.

Some of the study’s findings also varied between men and women, Bahns said.

“We did find that men spent more time looking at the waist and hip region than women did,” she said. “It’s an evolutionary tendency.”

Additionally, Bahns asked people to report whether they were attracted to people or interested in being their friends after looking at the photos. She said looking at photos for a longer period of time had a positive correlation for women, making them more attracted to men, while for men, they were less attracted to women the longer they looked.


“I sort of interpret that as men looking at women with a critical gaze,” Bahns said. “It was one of the most surprising parts of the study to me.”

But overall, Bahns said she thinks the study suggests something that counters previous research on attraction.

“It suggests that attraction is a dynamic process,” she said. “Depending on who the perceiver is and what their goals are at the time, the outcome might be different. You can look at the same person who has the same sets of objective characteristics and make a different contextual judgment.”

So is beauty really in the eye of the beholder? In some ways, it might be.

Bahns said there were individual variations — not everyone looked at the same features to determine whether they were attracted to someone.


“It’s not just about the subject,” she said. “It’s about the person looking as well.”

Laney Ruckstuhl can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laneyruckstuhl.